Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/McDonnell, Alexander

McDONNELL, Sir ALEXANDER (1794–1875), commissioner of national education in Ireland, eldest son of James McDonnell, M.D., was born at Belfast in 1794. He gained a king's scholarship at Westminster school in 1809, and was elected in 1813 to Christ Church, Oxford, where he held a studentship till 1826. He graduated B.A. 1816, and M.a. 1820, and won four univerisity prizes—those for Latin and Engligh verse and for the Latin and English essays—an accumulation of honours only once before achieved. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, 23 Nov. 1824, went the midland circuit, attended the Leicester and Northampton sessions, and served as a commissioner of inquiry into public charities. Of an exceedingly sensitive temperament, he broke down in pleading a case before a committee of the House of Lords, and, mortified beyond expression, renounced the bar, returned to Ireland, and accepted the position of chief clerk in the chief secretary's office under Thomas Drummond (1797–1840) [q. v.] In 1839 he was appointed resident commissioner of the board of education, of which he became the presiding genius. While himself an ardent protestant, he persistently sought to provide for his poorer countrymen the religious instruction of their choice. He was made a privy councillor of Ireland in 1846, resigned his commissionership in December 1871, and was created a baronet 20 Jan. 1872. Study of the classics and history formed the chief solace of his retirement. He was deeply attached to Ireland, which he desired to see drawn closer to England by means of just and generous government. He died at 32 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, 21 Jan. 1875, and was buried at Kilsharvan, near Drogheda. He married in 1826 Barbara, eldest daughter of Hugh Montgomery of Benvarden, co. Antrim, and widow of Richard Staples. She died at Kilsharvan, 6 April 1865, leaving no issue.

[Welch's Alumni Westmon. p. 476; Times, 25 Jan. 1875, p. 7; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878, p. 311; Illustrated London News, 1875, lxvi. 115; Spectator, 20 Feb. 1875, pp. 240–1.]

G. C. B.